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New program to deploy trained civilians in Riverside parks as the ‘eyes and ears’ for city police

As many as 20 unsworn officers will patrol the city's busiest parks where concerns of public safety and security have continued to grow throughout the community.

A photo of one of Riverside's parks
The City of Riverside and the Riverside Police Department are deploying unsworn officers into city parks to strengthen local security.

The City of Riverside has adopted a trained specialists program to increase oversight and strengthen levels of security throughout the city’s busiest parks.

Formally named Parks and Neighborhood Specialists (PANS), the program will consist of 20 unsworn officers who will report to the Riverside Police Department (RPD). Of Riverside’s 58 parks, which span across nearly 3,000 acres of land, the specialists will oversee parkland where higher reports of disturbances have been made.

“We’re excited about it. I can’t wait for it to get off the ground,” said Chief Larry Gonzalez of the Riverside police.

In a conversation with the Gazette, Gonzales said unlike traditional park ranger programs, the specialists will not be trained in forestry. Instead, they will act solely as the “eyes and ears of the department” to de-escalate and report situations that ultimately do not require police intervention.

Once on the ground, PANS officers will either be on foot or deployed with electric bicycles, similar to that of the bike cops in Downtown Riverside. To ensure their high visibility, each officer will wear park ranger-identifying uniforms with a shoulder patch. They will also have limited citation power “where they can actually cite people for municipal code violations,” Gonzalez said. Although they cannot carry weapons as unsworn officers, each trained specialist will be equipped with police radios to receive and communicate intel with the department.

Along with the parks, trained specialists will patrol the Santa Ana River Trail. However, despite the congestion of unhoused individuals they will not be commanded to cover the riverbottom or deter homelessness in that specific area. Gonzalez said park safety concerns pertaining to this issue has been the biggest complaint made to the department over the years.

“I hate going to community meetings and hearing that people are afraid to go to little league practice because whether it’s a homeless guy or people with mental illness, it’s scary. It scares people,” he said.

Taking into account the public’s concerns of frequent suspicious activity, the RPD conducted a city analysis where it found that one-third of all calls made to the department within a given year came from within the parks and a quarter-mile radius of parkland. Using the data research, it formulated the PANS program and first introduced the idea to the Budget Engagement Commission (BEC) earlier this year.

The BEC later voted and unanimously passed the proposal in the June 2021 budget, allowing the program to receive funding from Measure Z which helps pay for underfunded city programs. The measure’s implementation, which Riverside voters approved in 2016, works to fund efforts to reduce city homelessness, prevents cuts from the police and fire departments and services repairs to infrastructure, among other things.

Riverside Councilmember Erin Edwards, who oversees Ward 1, and chairs the Housing and Homelessness Committee said the Downtown Area Neighborhood Alliance (DANA), which responds to public concerns to preserve Downtown Riverside, initially presented its own idea of a park ranger program to Riverside City Council before she was elected in 2019. She’s been an advocate for a city specialists program ever since and after listening to the needs of her own community said she believes PANS will have “a great and positive impact on our parks and directly to residents.”

“I’m so proud of our city, of our police department, of our [Parks, Recreation and Community Services] department for strategizing the best way to bring a program like this to life, even as we’ve had some uncertainty in our own city resources,” Edwards said.

Once PANS was approved by the BEC Gonzalez said he sent police officers to various cities including Santa Ana, Anaheim and Pasadena, which have implemented their own park ranger programs. Ultimately, the structure of Pasadena’s program, he said, was used to model PANS as it best fit Riverside’s needs.

Some of the other programs included rangers that had the authority of peace officers. Gonzales said, however, that Riverside would fare just well with civilian rangers as it is more cost-efficient.

“I think if you have highly trained individuals, which I think we do, that they’ll be able to handle [situations involving conflict] correctly,” he said.

The RPD is currently on their way to hiring its first group of specialists. All the PANS applicants, some of which Gonzalez said are city employees, must first undergo physical agility tests, complete multiple written examinations and pass a background check, although one not as detailed as for a police officer. These series of tests will determine who is fit to move forward in the hiring process.

After selection, hirees will receive immediate on-the-job and formal training to be deployed as soon as possible. Gonzalez said if the department can clear the first 19 background checks it will not hesitate to get the officers in the parks. He said the hope is that all is completed and ready by January.

In the three weeks of training with the RPD, PANS officers will learn defensive tactics, understand the tactical deployment of electric bicycles, become familiar with other new equipment and review briefings within the department to remain up to date with park issues.

As part of their formal training, the officers will receive the same grounding provided to the RPD Public Safety and Engagement Teams (PSET), including mental health guides. These lessons help teach officers how to best mediate situations involving individuals experiencing homelessness or individuals with mental illness. The training, Gonzalez said, will prepare them with the ability to communicate directly and provide additional resources, if necessary.

However, should a specialist find trouble deescalating a heightened encounter, Gonzalez said they can call for backup but that police officers will continue to respond to crimes that have occurred or are occurring in the area as usual.

Right now, Gonzalez said he’s focused on appointing four sworn officers who work in Riverside’s four Neighborhood Policing Centers, located on the north, east, central and west sides, “to have oversight of the PANS officers.” They will serve as the specialists’ primary points of contact.

As of date, Gonzalez said the RPD has announced the program to the public on its social media platforms and will continue to do so — including unveiling the specialists’ uniforms and providing an explainer of their duties — once the department is prepared to deploy officers in the parks.

Gonzalez said he hopes the program will encourage positive park activity and help Riversiders feel safe again.

“We’ll probably have less calls for service for police officers spending their time on calls the PANS officers can handle,” Gonzalez said.